That’s Not How Any of This Works

January 16, 2018 § 14 Comments

Vintage black and white photo of man and woman in Victorian dress on penny farthing bicycle with square wheels.

Pedal harder, I think we’re going somewhere!

What do we mean by “literary citizenship”? At Salon, Becky Tuch sums it up nicely:

…most agree that good Literary Citizenship entails buying from local bookstores, attending readings, subscribing to literary magazines, interviewing writers, reviewing books, reading a friend’s manuscript, blurbing books, and so on.

And while Tuch (and I) agree with the spirit of these activities, she questions their hidden purpose. Why must we be literary citizens? Because publishers barely market mid-list and literary authors. Because Amazon has radically changed the bookstore and Wattpad has disrupted the publishing pipeline. But as Tuch points out,

the burden to ameliorate the negative effects of these industry changes falls not upon those responsible for said changes, but upon writers.

We must market. We must build platform. We must generate enough profit that the publisher will ask us to make more money for them. Writers are urged to spend hard cash on publicity and countless hours making deposits into the bank of goodwill so they can withdraw favors when the time comes. Or we can self-publish, working even harder but keeping the profit–if there is any.

Literary citizenship works when it builds community. When it feeds the writer, and contributes to, as Jane Friedman writes,

…an abundance mindset. It’s not about competition, but collaboration. If I’m doing well, that’s going to help you, too, in the long term. We’re not playing a zero-sum game where we hoard resources and attention. There’s plenty to go around.

I enjoy the abundance mindset, and I feel good helping others. Not just virtuous, or morally superior, but genuinely good.

I didn’t always feel that way. You know that sharp sting of envy when a writer you know gets a prize or a publication, and a little part of your heart yells, “Hey! That should have been mine!”? I get that too. But after deliberately practicing feeling positive about other people’s success, the sting is shorter. An unsung benefit of literary citizenship is when envy is drowned by pride:

I helped with that draft.

I told her about that residency.

I encouraged him to submit that essay.

So when I found in my inbox [subjects changed to protect the ignorant]: “I finished my history of barrel-making and a book of lyric poetry about mysticism. Do you know any agents or publishers I could send them to?” my reaction surprised me.

Um, no.

I remonstrated: Come on, Allison, this is a perfectly nice person you met at a party. You’ve passed on recommendations to lots of other writers you barely know. Why not this one?

Because that’s not how any of this works.

  1. Do your own damn homework. Basic googling brings up lists of agents. Manuscript Wishlist gets even more specific. Ask writer friends about particular matches. It’s the difference between “I’m naked, tell me what clothes I can buy” and “Red shirt or green blouse with these pants?”
  2. Seriously, do the homework. Two different genres, two different subjects–pick one for now. When you’re famous and well-published, then bring out your wildly different book. Agents want debut authors focused on one topic or genre.
  3. I’ve never read this person’s work. Useful recommendations come from knowing your work and the craft level you’ve reached. Classes, workshops and conferences are great places to get professionals to read your work, and you can buy that benefit with tuition. Local writing groups (try Meetup) get you fellow readers for free.
  4. Be part of the community you want favors from. This author has never read my work (that I know of), bought my book, retweeted something I linked, written a review of the Brevity Podcast or even commented on a personal Facebook status. I do not feel connected in a favor-asking way. 4/5 of those ways to connect are free of charge.
  5. Know how big the ask is. Personally recommending an agent or a publisher is a fairly big deal. If you don’t have a close connection, join a Facebook group for authors in your genre, spend some time being helpful in the group, then ask for recommendations in a post. Plenty of people will weigh in with information also benefiting the whole group. On a personal level, my friend of twenty years recommended me to his agent…after reading my whole manuscript and concluding he wouldn’t be embarrassed. If a teacher mentions they’ll connect you with their agent, take an honest look at whether the agent is a good match, then send your best draft, hopefully making your teacher look like a gifted talent-spotter.

(My most-recommended source for a good grounding in basic publishing info and etiquette is literary agent Janet Reid’s blog. Start with the links halfway down on the right headed Rules For Writers.)

It’s not fair that writers are obliged to labor considerably more than they used to to generate sales, or that “self-publicist” is practically a full-time job. But it’s reality. So learn how it works, do it slow, and do it right.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 14 Responses to That’s Not How Any of This Works

  • philipparees says:

    Cranky is justified, when a machine has been working without the oil of reciprocation for many years! Totally understood.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      And most of the time, people are lovely and reciprocative – I think more than anything, I’m frustrated I don’t know the person who contacted me well enough to have this discussion with them directly!

  • Because I take everything personally, I immediately reviewed my own asks. I asked a woman whose novels I have reviewed, whose readings I attend, and for whom I have done other minor favors for a recommendation to her agent. I asked one of MFA mentors for recommendations about journals and he gave me a list. Another offered recommendations about retreats. The other two? One suggested there was no point in submitting to journals. I was too scared to ask the other.

    Since few of us can afford to pay for editing, I do it a lot. I am an excellent editor of others’ work. Like most people, I am a better editor of the work of other people than I am of my own. I resent correcting careless and consistent grammatical errors, but I tend to do it without complaint. Some year ago, I asked a YA author with whom I had exchanged manuscripts for a recommendation to her agent and received the only really rude response I have ever received from an agent.

    I have written hundreds of letters of recommendations for high school seniors applying to universities across the country. This is something that no one would argue is not part of my job as a public school teacher. My students have been admitted to Harvard, Yale, Brown, University of Chicago, Rochester, University of Washington, Pepperdine, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Duke—pretty much every prestigious college you could name. Three of my students earned Gates Millennial scholarships, others won Fords. I have helped former students write letters that earned them grants, scholarships, and entry to graduate programs. They do not always remember to tell me how they did as a result of my help. One young woman who is now in the midway through medical school sent me a gift certificate in thanks.

    My former students also know I write, and they sometimes ask me for writing advice about specific applications, submissions, agents, and retreats. Because I feel it is part of my responsibility to continue acting as a support long after they graduate, I provide detailed editing and advice when asked. They are generally thankful. Sometimes the truth about the work necessary or their chances of publishing offends them, and I never hear back.

    Too late to make a long story short, but yes, I get your point, Allison. Thank you for making it.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thanks for giving so much…and I, too, find that sharing time and guidance with high school students is one of the best parts of literary citizenship!

  • Anne McGrath says:

    I find what you do here on the Brevity Blog extremely generous and of the highest caliber of literary citizenship, Allison. The passionate curating, organizing, editing, guiding, writing, are a joy. Thank you.

  • Amy Bee says:

    Reblogged this on lion by the tail and commented:
    I’ve learned today I need to work on my literary citizenship

  • This was an excellent discussion on community and good citizenship within the community that applies to any community whether it be writers or horse enthusiasts, or water colorists. As far as the community of writers go, I get a kick out of writing; I will never be a good writer according to my criteria, but I improve from reading good writers

  • This is SO. HELPFUL. I work in the publishing industry (licensing/children’s books) but still the world of non-fiction writing feels opaque… So glad I stumbled upon Brevity.

  • […] via That’s Not How Any of This Works — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • […] day. I have not bothered posting a link on FB because I know few will look at it even if I do. Allison K. Williams has something to say about good literary citizenship, and it mostly does not involve social […]

  • […] to build their core audience. Going to readings and events, collecting names and emails. Being a literary citizen. We’re all looking for a lucky break, and lightning may well strike, but it usually strikes […]

  • […] invest in our careers. Spend our precious time reading widely and keeping up with literary news. Be good literary citizens. Pay for conferences and workshops where we make connections and find mentors. Get an MFA. Read for […]

  • […] in the literary community—being a good literary citizen—through teaching keeps me in the loop about our profession/field and helps me build relationships […]

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